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Thinking Pluralistically: A Case for Direct Action

“Any nation has the right to defend itself from terror.”
President George Bush

A new civil war is unfolding—one between forces hell-bent on exploiting animals and the earth for profit whatever the toll, and activists steeled to resist this omnicide tooth and nail. We are witnessing not only the long-standing corporate war against nature, but also a new social war about nature.

“War” entails violence, hatred, bloodshed, and an escalation of conflict when dialogue fails. In the battle over animal liberation, negotiations are breaking down and boundaries are being erased on both sides. Government and industry thugs unleash violence on activists, while the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) employs sabotage, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) uses strong intimidation tactics, and militant animal liberation groups such as the Animal Rights Militia, the Justice Department, and the Revolutionary Cells openly advocate violence against animal abusers.

Realizing that adopting a nonviolent approach to animal exploiters in fact is a pro-violence stance that tolerates their blood-spilling without taking adequate measures to stop it, a new breed of freedom fighters has ditched Gandhi for Machiavelli and switched principled nonviolence with the amoral (not to be confused with immoral) pragmatism that embraces animal liberation “by any means necessary.”

Fallacies of the Mainstream

Many critics of the ALF, SHAC, and direct action tactics poorly understand what makes social change movements possible and effective. They rely on a naive model of political struggle and human nature that assumes rational dialogue can solve all conflicts. They use facile generalizations such as “violence is always wrong” and “ALF actions always get bad publicity” that are flat out wrong. In addition, they consistently misrepresent direct action advocates as naively believing that sporadic acts of vandalism and intimidation alone can win animal liberation.

Looking at modern social history, it is clear that civil disobedience, property destruction, and violence have been important political tactics for the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, labor and national independence movements, suffragette struggles, and the civil rights movement. Similarly, the history of the ALF and SHAC shows that break-ins, liberations, property destruction, arson, and intimidation tactics have completely shut down some operations, weakened others, and provided otherwise unobtainable documentation of animal exploitation in fur farms, vivisection labs, and elsewhere. As evident in the 1980s era of ALF-PETA press conferences, the exposes of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), and the summer 2003 attacks on foie gras chefs and restaurants in the Bay area, dramatic sabotage and direct action methods often get good press that reform campaigns cannot generate. This valuable publicity exposes vicious industry practices and sparks important public dialogue about animal wrongs and animal rights.

Whereas advocates of direct action such as Paul Watson, Rod Coronado, and Kevin Jonas use inclusive approaches that acknowledge the validity of different approaches in different situations, critics of direct action wield exclusive approaches that deny the need for and validity of a plurality of tactics – both legal and illegal, aboveground and underground. Mainstream “exclusionists” speak ex cathedra as if they alone possess Truth and can infallibly predict which tactic will work.

If it is to succeed, the animal advocacy movement – encompassing diverse voices for welfare, rights, and liberation -- must embrace a multidimensional and contextualist model of change rooted in the basic insight that different situations require different and perhaps multiple types of tactics to be deployed simultaneously. Eschewing dogma and pre-packaged answers, this approach asks: what tactic or combination of tactics is appropriate to a specific situation?

It is obvious that not all violence is justified, but it is equally obvious that not all violence is unjustified. Self-defense is one example where it is acceptable and prudent to use force against another person if necessary. Beginning in 1974, the ALF declared war against animal oppressors and the state that defends them, but the ALF did not start the conflict. The ALF did not so much wage war as it entered into a war that animal exploiters long ago began. If one party succumbs to a war initiated by another party, it employs violence in self-defense and so its actions are legitimate. Acting as proxy agents for animals who cannot defend themselves against violent human supremacists, ALF actions in principle are just.

The Just War Defense

Just war theory emerged as a response by Christian philosophers to reconcile the non-violent teachings of Christ with a social reality rooted in warfare and violence. As developed by St. Augustine (354-430) and St. Aquinas (1225-1274), and elaborated further by Francisco Vitoria (1492-1546) and Francisco de Suarez (1548-1617) in the 16th and 17th centuries, just war theory employs two different criteria to evaluate a violent conflict. The jus ad bellum (right to war) condition addresses the grounds for entering a war and the jus in bellum (right in war) condition involves the circumstances of waging the battle once it begins. The jus ad bellum condition holds that if one party wages or enters into war with another party, violence must be employed as a last resort after efforts to resolve conflict through peaceful means have been exhausted. The jus in bellum condition requires that violence must be exercised in proportion to what is needed to end a conflict and not be excessive.

In terms of conditions for entering a conflict, direct action groups like the ALF and SHAC have strong reasons for resorting to illegal actions, sabotage, and intimidation tactics. After all the welfare campaigns of the last century, ever more animals are being killed in increasingly horrific ways. Where laws protecting animals exist at all, they are weak, poorly enforced, and constantly revised and watered-down. In cases where the legal system fails the animals, such as Paul Watson found in his fight to protect seals and whales, activists have no choice but to circumvent it and apply direct pressure on exploiters.

ALF and SHAC actions also are consistent with the ethical constraints placed on waging a conflict. One might argue conservatively that an illegitimate use of violence would entail, among other things, physical violence against human beings. But, as non-violent groups (I do not define property destruction and psychological intimidation as violence), the ALF and SHAC never attack or injure human beings, however righteous their anger against animal exploiters. Given the gravity of the situation for the animals they represent, such direct action groups should not be criticized for using excessive force but rather commended for exercising moderation and restraint.

The ALF attacks property, not people. Moreover, the ALF only targets those directly involved in animal exploitation and thus avoids those who qualify as “innocent” or “non-combatants.” According to just war criteria, “collateral damage” in a war is expected and unavoidable, but combatants must seek to minimize it, as does the ALF. SHAC, interestingly, has a different tactic that blurs the line between combatant and non-combatant. By pressuring companies and individuals who do not directly work for HLS but provide financial backing or other services, such as cleaning, SHAC sees those indirectly associated with HLS as legitimate targets and combatants.

The critique of SHAC’s home demonstration tactic as illegitimate because it is potentially harmful to children misses the mark. It is not SHAC’s intention to cause any psychological trauma to children, but if SHAC is engaged in a just war, this trauma can be viewed as unfortunate but unavoidable. SHAC critics favor human interests over animal interests in a speciesist way. The harm children might suffer from a home demo is inconsequential compared to what animals suffer in HLS labs and can be assuaged through conversation. SHAC critics privilege the relative comfort of bourgeois children over the absolute misery of animals, psychological discomfort over physical agony, and potential harm over certain suffering and death. If one used a utilitarian calculus in this “your child or your dog?” situation, surely the scale would tip heavily toward the animals.

Limitations of “Non-violence”

Critics of direct action fail to see that non-violent approaches condone or contribute to violence in a larger context. Undue concern for children involved in a SHAC home demo, for instance, means more animals will suffer and die. The question is not whether one will be nonviolent or violent, but rather which violence will one unavoidably support? As Paul Watson states in his book, Sea Shepherd: My Fight for Whales and Seals, “To remain nonviolent totally is to allow the perpetuation of violence against people, animals, and the environment. The Catch-22 of it – the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma – is that, if we eschew violence for ourselves, we often thereby tacitly allow violence for others, who are then free to settle issues violently until they are resisted, necessarily with violence.” Similarly, in her Afterword to Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Ingrid Newkirk writes, “If a concentration camp or laboratory is burned, that is violence, but if it is left standing is that not more and worse violence? … Isn’t the chicken house today’s concentration camp? … Will we condemn its destruction or condemn its existence? Which is the more violent wish?”

There is a new face of animal rights activism, a new militancy entirely appropriate to the dire suffering of animals. Direct activists urge non-violent and legal tactics as preferable wherever they can work. But they also understand that not all human beings respond to compassion and love; that choices are strongly conditioned by economic, political, and other institutional ties and interests; and that intractable social conflicts are not solved by education and legislation alone.

If we are ever to win the battle for animal liberation, it will be only after the animal advocacy movement stops infighting and learns to respect and utilize its amazing diversity of approaches. We must renounce dogmatic positions that see only one way to the future and adopt a pluralist and contextualist approach that understands the need to fight our battle on as many fronts as possible, using tactics that are legal and illegal, aboveground and underground.

Ultimately, we need a revolutionary social transformation that dissolves the worldviews, hierarchies, and sensibilities that generate violence and conflict against humans and animals alike. Until then, let’s strive for more understanding, respect, and cooperation in our own house.

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